Coming out in high school

By Elizabeth Clarke, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 31, 2003

Fag.

Dyke.

That's so gay.

Hardly a day goes by that gay and lesbian teenagers don't hear these slurs at school.

Personal insults, like "I hate you, dyke," or comments overheard in the hall, like today's popular slang for anything dumb or stupid: "That's so gay." They're unprintable insults or physical threats, or worse.

Here in America, land of the free, 83 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered students endure frequent verbal harassment because of their sexuality, according to a 2001 National School Climate Survey. Nearly 70 percent don't feel safe at school.

Gay and lesbian students in Palm Beach County hope that changes. Though the school district added "sexual orientation" to its anti-harassment policy in March, gay students aren't optimistic. They don't think other students have heard about the change or been urged to heed it.

Sadly, verbal harassment from classmates isn't the hardest part of being gay in high school.

It's worse when you lose your friends or get outed. It's worse when teachers make fun of you or parents no longer believe in you.

It's worse when you must hide your sexuality -- simply to keep a roof over your head.

No, the harassment isn't the worst of it.

But still...

"Wouldn't it be cool to have an all-gay high school?" one student daydreams.

Esme Wallant-Pereira, 15

Freshman, Santaluces High School

"Who told you?"

Esme Wallant-Pereira didn't come out at school.

She was outed.

Her ex-girlfriend told all her friends and they told their friends. Pretty soon, kids she didn't even know were asking her, "You're gay?"

All she could think to say was, "Who told you?"

Months later, it still comes out of her mouth in a tiny, heartbroken voice. Esme had never liked school. This made her despise the place.

"Hate it," she says. "I do well, A's and B's, mostly A's. But I don't like it."

She hates that everyone finds her sexuality fascinating. She hates being called names. She hates hearing "that's so gay" in the halls. She hates feeling so alone.

Some of that's just the plain old torture of high school. Some of it's worse.

"I went to hospital homebound classes over the phone for most of the second quarter because I just couldn't take it," she says. "I have like 17 absences from then.

" That was last fall. Since then she has found others like her in the HOPE youth program at Compass, a gay and lesbian support organization in West Palm Beach. She has told her family, and her mom has been great, so great that the other kids at Compass envy her.

Just a few months ago, Esme sat nearly silent through a HOPE meeting with a sweatshirt hood pulled tight around her face. Today she dashes around the building with friends, eating candy and giving hugs.

"The support she's given there has made a huge turnaround in her personality," says her mom, Kim Wallant. "It's taught her a lot of empathy and it's gotten her out of herself. She used to be so glum and sullen and uninterested in anything outside herself."

Esme even endures school these days and hopes to start a Gay Straight Alliance at Santaluces in the fall. But don't get any ideas about her enjoying school.

"I've actually numbered my planner back from 180. Since the beginning of the school year, I've been counting down to summer.

" She's almost made it.

Jacqueline Ferrigno, 17

Senior, Forest Hill High School

"I'm a lesbian, Dad."

Jacqueline Ferrigno's mom died when Jacqueline was 3, leaving just her and dad. They've always been close, and she wondered and worried about his reaction to her news.

It had been easy telling her friends.

And it had been almost fun telling everyone at Forest Hill High School, where she's "always been one of the biggest, baddest people." She just climbed onto a table in the courtyard one morning and yelled, "I'm a dyke."

Dad was different.

She started by asking for a ride home one afternoon and just kept talking: She was going to be at Compass, she told him. It's a gay and lesbian support organization. She would be attending a youth group meeting. For gay and lesbian teens.

"I'm a lesbian, Dad." "He goes, 'Well, I don't think you're a lesbian. I think it's just a phase for you. I don't think you really know yet.' "

"He asked me, 'Have you gone out with any girls yet?' I said no. And he goes, 'Well, how do you know that you are gay?'

"I turned to him and said, 'When you were a little kid and you never went out with any girls before, how did you know you were straight?'

"I mean, you know. A chick walks by and you like her or you have strong feelings for a girlfriend, you're going to know."

Her dad accepts it, but their relationship isn't the same, she says. "I feel like he wishes I wasn't gay or he doesn't like talking about it. We never talked about it. He says he supports me, but I just don't feel it.

"He doesn't bash it or anything, but my father will not come inside this (Compass) building to pick me up. He calls (someone inside) to send me out.

"I love my dad, but I wish I didn't have to feel like I couldn't talk to him about it. He always told me, 'When you have a boyfriend, you can always talk to me.' And I always did. But it's like now I can't talk to him about this, because I get the impression that he just is nervous.

"I understand it's a new subject, but I'm your kid. It's out there in the world. It shouldn't be this new awkward subject because, 'Hey, you like girls. I like girls. We have a lot in common.' "

Hector Camilo Castro, 17

Junior, Palm Beach Lakes High School

"I am not some kind of alien.

" His family hasn't rejected him, exactly.

His closest friends still say hello.

But coming out hasn't been easy for Hector Camilo Castro.

His family is religious, Roman Catholic, Colombian. Their culture and their faith, like most major Christian faiths, condemn acting homosexual, although not being homosexual.

"When I came out to my mother almost a year ago, she said, 'What is the church going to say?' She said she was going to become the black sheep in her community because she has a homosexual son. She asked me not to tell anyone. She worried about me and what other people would say.

" That's why he had come out at school first. He told a lesbian friend. She introduced him to her crowd, and pretty soon he had his first boyfriend.

"It was hard because I used to hang out with all Hispanic people, and now I started hanging out with those people. And they (his Hispanic friends) were always asking, 'Why are you with them?' I'm like, 'They're just friends.'

"So I met one guy there and we started going out, and one day he just simply kissed me in the courtyard in front of everybody at lunch."

He was happy to shed his secret.

"I felt relieved," Hector says. "It felt good."

Now he's even teased for being bold. He and his boyfriend, Aquiles Lopez, stroll CityPlace hand-in-hand and kiss in public. They giggle when friends joke about their openness.

"We're basically the rebels of the gay community because we hold hands," Aquiles says.

They also hang out at Hector's house together, although they don't kiss or hold hands there. Sometimes Aquiles spends the night, and Hector's family doesn't mind having him around.

"They accept him as a person, but they reject the situation between us," Hector says. "I actually feel depressed because they don't understand something that is so simple."

His friends, the crowd he used to hang out with after school and on the weekends, don't understand either. They used to be his closest pals. Now they avoid him, "because they think I have some kind of disease," he says.

"They say hi to me, but there is another gay friend and he's not out in school, and he hangs around with them and he just says, 'Well, they treat you like shit when you're not around. They talk about you all the time and every gay situation that comes up, you pop up in the conversation.' "

He misses his friends.

But he misses an honest relationship with his parents more.

"The toughest part of coming out is (trying) to get back the same kind of confidence that my parents used to have in me," he wrote in an e-mail. "And to help people understand that I am not some kind of alien. I want to help them understand that I am a normal person who simply likes some things in a different way."

Danny Ruth, 17

Junior, South Technical Community High School

"I don't shout it from the rooftops, because i don't feel it's a necessity."

Danny Ruth hadn't planned to tell his mom when he did.

"It was something that happened so fast. She was worried about me being depressed... and then one thing led to another in the conversation and it just came out. It wasn't like I was real concerned at the moment. I didn't prepare a speech. It wasn't something I expected to happen that day."

It wasn't a big deal to her, as far as Danny could tell.

"She was fine with it. It's surprising. I consider myself very lucky," says Danny, now a junior.

"I told my brother.... He's a military man, that type of person, so I was like, 'If anybody's going to take it in a different way, it's going to be him.' But he was fine with it.

"I've never had anybody on the negative side that I've told that have been my friends. I guess that's how I proved that they're my real friends."

He still doesn't like chatting about his sexuality with his family. He assumes his mom told his dad, but they've never discussed it.

"I feel very uncomfortable when I talk about it either with my mother or my brother, which surprises me. I told them, so you'd think I'd feel comfortable talking about it, but it's just really uncomfortable. She'll mention it every once in a while and I just try to change the subject.

"I'm not ashamed of it in any way, but it's like something I don't think is vital to my everyday life."

He feels the same way about school. He doesn't announce that he's gay, but his friends know. Usually he feels safe from harassment. He thinks his school, vocational South Technical High, is different from most public high schools, because it serves alternative students.

"I felt so comfortable when I went to high school, because it was like everybody's different. Everybody accepts that. I guess I felt comfortable enough to be me for the first time in a real long time.

" It was such a relief after middle school, when kids ostracized anyone who was different.

He still gets harassed, but infrequently. Maybe once a month.

"It's just the whole thing of people asking, 'Are you gay?' And they do it in a real sarcastic way or they do it to point out something in front of everybody. But it doesn't really embarrass me anymore, because I'm comfortable with myself.

"There are people in my class that use the f-word (fag) and stuff like that, but I'm just comfortable with myself. It doesn't bother me anymore.

"It's like, whatever, to me. I'm just like, I didn't know I was the center of somebody's life," he says, laughing.

He's private about his sexuality. Not because he's gay, necessarily, but because his sexuality is only part of who he is and he wants to be known for other things, too. He didn't want his photograph to accompany this story for that reason.

"I'm not the most out-there person. I don't shout it from the rooftops, because I don't feel it's a necessity. Anybody that's not my friend doesn't need to know my personal business. I've told all my friends and all the people that mean something to me."

Alex McCoy, 16

Sophomore, Spanish River High School

"When I come home every day, I feel really bad."

Alex McCoy can't tell his parents he's gay.

They'd kick him out of the house. His mother has made it clear.

That's why Alex McCoy isn't his real name.

He's a 16-year-old high school sophomore living in Palm Beach County. But some other details of his story have been changed to protect him.

"My family's foundation is truly God," he says. "God comes first, no matter what happens."

His Pentecostal church teaches that homosexuality is a sin. His devout family considers it second only to murder.

"It makes it that much harder for me to be a gay teenager living in a Christian home. At home, I'm so discreet about what I say."

At school, most people know he's gay and he's comfortable with that, but Alex isn't really himself around his family.

"I talk in a deeper voice. I have to scratch and burp. (We don't) watch TV shows with gay characters," he says. "When I come home every day, I feel really bad."

He goes to church with the family every Sunday and several other days during the week. His family prays together at home daily. Religious keepsakes fill the walls.

"I go to church only because I have to go. I have to set up an image."

He isn't sure how he feels about his faith.

One day he rejects religion, saying God exists only as energy for him. Another day he embraces it.

"I do want to keep a faith, because I grew up on faith," he says that day.

It's hard. Most Christian religions teach that acting homosexual is a sin, although being homosexual isn't. Some churches, like Alex's, condemn homosexuality head on, regardless of the biblical teachings that God loves everyone.

For now, Alex prefers to remember what a friend once told him: "God doesn't make mistakes, and he created you.

" "I still believe that there is a God. Even though I live my life as a homosexual, I know God is all-merciful. I know that he still loves me no matter what I do or who I am."

But he's still reconciling these beliefs about who he is and how God fits in.

"I've come to terms with my sexuality. I need to try to come to terms with my sexuality and my religion."

He'll probably work on that after he tells his parents he's gay.

He knows he'll tell them someday. In the meantime, he excels at school, working toward a college scholarship. He wants to have his education paid for in case his parents cut him off financially when they learn the truth.

"The day they find out it will be a really big struggle. They'll accept it one day. I know they will. But it won't be as quick as I want it to be."

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